Efem Nkam Ubi, Senior Research Fellow, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs

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Ethnicity blights democratisation and nation-building in Africa 21 Jan 2019

One of the problems undermining liberal democracy in Africa is ethnicity. In fact, despite the rise of multiparty democracy on the continent, the electoral decision-making processes are often defined by vitriolic rivalries between clans and cultural groupings.
While agreeing that ethnicity predates colonial Africa, its prominence today is arguably a by-product of the balkanization of Africa by European powers. The arbitrary borders created at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 confined different ethnic groups to specific states. Many of those boundaries enclosed hundreds of diverse and independent groups with no common history, culture, language or religion.
The fusion of these various independent groups has imploded into the crisis of incompatibility and the queer absence of national identity that characterize the political landscape of many African countries since their independence. Today, ethnicity is a bane to nationhood and the consolidation of liberal democracy on the continent.

Ethnicity is difficult to define. Unlike race, which is primarily seen and understood on the basis of skin colour and phenotype, ethnicity does not necessarily provide visual indication. However, for the purpose of this article, I make do with Richard A. Schermerhorn’s definition. He defined an ethnic group as “a collectivity within a larger society having real or putative common ancestry, memories of a shared historical past, and a cultural focus on one or more symbolic elements defined as the epitome of their peoplehood.”

Schermerhorn’s examples of such symbolic elements are kinship patterns, physical contiguity (as in localism or sectionalism), religious affiliation, language or dialect forms, tribal affiliations, nationality, phonotypical features, or any combination of these.

Deriving from that, an ethnic group does not exist simply because of common national origins. However, the group’s ethnic identity is a function of its unique historical, linguistic, ancestral, cultural and social experiences.

Today, many countries in Africa comprise of divergent ethnic systems, although the extent of divergence differs. With almost 300 linguistic groups, Nigeria is seen as one of the most ethnically diverse countries not only in Africa, but also in the world. However, relations between the ethnic groups in Nigeria have remained a major problem.

For instance, since the founding of Nigeria, the country’s major ethno-linguistic groups, Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo, have been antagonistic towards each other in the quest for supremacy in the political space.

While this problem is not peculiar to Nigeria, ethnicity has constituted a quandary to political progress by expanding conflict and further undermining statehood in many African countries.

In his book, Path to Nigerian Freedom, published in 1947, Chief Obafemi Awolowo wrote: “Nigeria is not a nation, it is a mere geographical expression. There are no “Nigerians” in the same sense as there are “English” or “Welsh” or “French”. The word Nigeria is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria from those who do not.”

In a similar vein, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first and only Prime Minister, also remarked in 1948, when he said: "Since 1914 the British government has been trying to make Nigeria into one country, but the Nigerian people themselves are historically different in their backgrounds, in their religious beliefs and customs and do not show themselves any signs of willingness to unite…Nigerian unity is only a British invention."   

Like Nigeria, Africa’s political scenario is dominated by the interest of the ruling elite and dominant social forces (usually ethnic groups). It remains a fact that political parties in Nigeria, like in many African countries, have ethno-regional configurations.

Politicians have further politicized ethnicity as different ethnic groups retreat into primordial constructs for cultural, if not political self-preservation. Competition in African politics based on ethno-regional identities means that where there is victory for one group, there will be total defeat for another. Thus, if an ethnic group feels that its interest will not be served within a nation ruled by its rival, then outright secession could be sought as the only solution.

The Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970, the quest for self-determination by the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) are examples of violent conflicts and protestations that can arise as a result of perceived marginalisation of certain groups.

Therefore, the struggle for the preservation of the ethnic heritage can necessarily blindside efforts to forge nation-building or nationhood. It is commonplace to find political leaders championing for political advantage for their ‘ethnos’ at the expense of the "nation." So doing, there is competition among each group, without realising that this undermines the harmonious quest for nationalism.

Sometimes, ethnic divisions can be exacerbated by denying the legitimacy of one's citizenship of a nation. A prime example of this problem keeps rearing its head in Cote d’Ivoire. Some people, for political expediency, use the term Ivoirité, which simply means that one is not a true Ivorian. The term has been used at different times throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s to alienate political opponents, leading to an eruption of violence.

In the 1990s, former President Henri Konan Bédié, Felix Houphouet-Boigny’s successor, attempted disenfranchisement of the north with the introduction of the Ivoirité concept. During the 1995 presidential election, he had used the term to gain an advantage over former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, who is from the north, alluding that he is not 100-percent Ivorian.

There is the false idealistic argument that with the establishment of liberal democracy in Africa, tribalism and ethnic difference would fade as people begin to identify themselves primarily with their country, as opposed to with their ethnic groups. However, mutual suspicions among the diverse ethnic nationalities within African countries and the lack of cross-cutting social relationships have not engendered liberal democratic ideals that would lead to nation-building.

My argument here is that ethnicity has grossly undermined Africa’s democratisation process and also weakened nationalism among contemporary African states. Ethnicity is the tool used by politicians to whip up sentiments for their selfish interest. For liberal democracy to thrive on the continent, despite the multiplicity of ethnic groups, it is important for African leaders to promote nationalism to enable their followers and citizens to begin to identify themselves from the point of view of their nations, instead of their ethnic groups. Only a sense of nationalism among majority of the citizens and leaders will help a country attain nationhood.